I want to celebrate the subjectivity of the accounts of the resurrection.
We can have no objective record of that moment in the tomb when death turned to life. The body was sealed away in rock cave, with no video cameras or witnesses present.
There have been attempts to find scientific evidence by analysing the Shroud of Turin, believed by some to have been what covered Jesus’ body, and which appears to show a kind of photographic negative of his face. The Shroud of Turin website to which I was visitor number 5,478,145, said in its introductory paragraph that after hundreds of thousands of hours of scientific investigation, the controversy still rages. The conclusions of a 1978 study said that the image was not produced by paint, but could give no indication of how it was produced.
Whatever evidence might be found, sceptics would always find ways of throwing doubt upon the interpretation, while people of faith would lean towards belief. The open tomb is viewed as evidence, but different stories were going around about that at the time. The next passage in Matthew’s gospel claims that the guards on the tomb were paid to say that his disciples came in the night and stole his body while they slept. Objective evidence is often co-opted by those who have an agenda.
For me, the most convincing evidence is subjective: it’s in the transformation of lives then and now, for instance, in the women and Peter in our readings from Matthew and Acts. For me, and for you, it’s in our own ongoing experience of transformation and call. The proof of the pudding is in the eating – it’s in the lived experience of those most deeply involved with Jesus then and now. Peter makes the point of telling Cornelius that Jesus appeared “not to all people but to those who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” We, too, are called to encounter the risen Christ, and we experience his risen life when we eat and drink with him in communion. The evidence of resurrection is not only in encounters with the risen Lord, but in the transformations that result, both then and now. In the gospel accounts, we see the empowerment of people who were paralyzed by remorse and grief, and sidelined by patriarchy and prejudice. We see the women commissioned by an angel and Jesus to bear witness of the resurrection to the other disciples. We see Peter, reinstated to leadership after the disgrace of his denial. In the reading from Acts 10 we see him letting go of his religious barriers and scruples, and telling the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection so convincingly to the Roman centurion, Cornelius, a representative of those who killed Jesus. It’s that sort of courage and that sort of change that give evidence to the new life of the resurrection.
I am particularly inspired by the empowerment of the women throughout the gospels, but markedly so after the resurrection. When the women come at dawn after the Sabbath, free at last to tend Jesus’ body, they are doing what women in their culture did for those they loved, laying out the dead. Instead they meet the messenger of the Lord who gives them a message to pass on. Their role as women is changed in that moment: they become the witnesses to the resurrection, although women could not witness in law in their society. Mind you, these are women who have already embarked on a new and radical life as followers of Jesus, providing for his ministry and accompanying him, learning at his feet like male disciples, being there for him as he died, when many had deserted him in fear. It is appropriate that they are first to see the absence of the body, and to encounter the risen Lord. They have shown their commitment to living new lives, and now become witnesses to the resurrection. Jesus confirms the commission given them by the angel, sending them to tell the good news of resurrection to the apostles. Matthew does not repeat Mark’s claim that the women “said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” Neither does he record the lack of belief from the male disciples that Luke reports: “But these words seemed to them an idle tale; and they did not believe them.” Rather in the same chapter, Matthew shows the disciples responding to the message that the women give to return to Galilee. So we see another dimension to resurrection life in this commissioning of the women to pass on the gospel, to be apostles to the apostles. As the different gospel accounts indicate, women’s ministry was an aspect of new life that struggled to be fully embodied, and in some traditions is still entombed, waiting for the stone to roll away. Once again, evidence can always be found to support either view, but the proof can only be experienced in its reception, as our tradition has mostly realized.
So having indicated how I celebrate subjective evidence of resurrection, let me contribute my own subjective account, of what I count as evidence of new life in Christ. Firstly, I relate to Peter, hurt by Jesus’ arrest and his failed hopes, experiencing abject failure in his denial of Jesus and then being healed by encounter with the living Christ. I too have been hurt and have hurt others, and have found healing and forgiveness in the example of Jesus and in continuing relationship to him through the eucharist and prayer. For me, faith and worship and the wisdom of Christ and others in scripture, provide me with the hope and inspiration to become more whole. For those who discount faith, that may sound trite, but for me it is central to who I am.
When it comes to life after death, the sense of something beyond this life, the experience of my father’s death was life-changing and put me on the path to ministry. The realm beyond this seemed so close, as if I could almost touch it. My mother’s vision of Jesus welcoming Dad with open arms was so consoling. Members of my family all seemed to experience something that gave us assurance that Dad had gone on in some way that had freedom and joy– nothing that would convince anyone but us, but for us, Dad seemed so close, so joyous. And then there was my relationship with God – I felt as if I said “Yes,” to something which has taken years to unfold, but led me here. And once or twice, I heard God speak. First God said: “I call in the opening and closing of doors,” which set me seeking doors that opened for me. Then later, with that wry undercurrent of humour which God seems to share with my Dad: “You’ve tried the back door, why don’t you try the front door for a change?” For me, that meant study and ordination.
Then I have another story that parallels Peter’s encounter with the risen Christ on the beach in John 21. One day, tired and distressed, I saw Jesus as I walked on a beach, yes, in my mind, but not conjured up consciously by me, and more real than anyone there. He washed the chipped mug that was me and turned it into a pearly bowl. He transformed the salt water into fresh to be offered to others. Again and again, I return to that vision for courage to go on in ministry. These very subjective experiences are to me as strong as an earthquake and the rolling away of a stone. Like the women, the tomb to which I had consigned my hopes was open, and I met Jesus alive, telling me to tell others. I have to speak of these experiences if I am to be true to the one who stands at the centre of my existence, offering healing and new life.